Technically the gentry consists of four separately defined groups, socially inferior only to the ranks of the peerage. The senior rank is that of baronet, a position founded in 1611 by James I giving the possessor the hereditary right to be addressed as Sir. The second rank is that of knight, originally a military honour, but increasingly employed in a secular manner as a reward for service to the crown. The third term ‘esquire’ originally had connotations with the battlefield. In the 14th cent. it was an honour which could be conferred by the crown, and by the 16th cent. it had a specific Office of Arms definition. Heraldic visitations, which began in 1530, were designed to oblige anyone claiming gentry status to prove their right. Increasingly through the 16th and 17th cents. the heralds found it difficult to enforce their authority, and numbers proliferated, both of esquires and particularly of the fourth gentry rank, that of gentleman. ‘Gentleman’ emerged as a separate title in connection with the statute of Additions of 1413 and, like esquire, was originally closely defined.
The concept of the gentlemanly way of life was current in the 16th cent., and became increasingly important by the 19th cent. A gentleman was a man who held a social position implying a style of living, usually without manual labour, and with connotations for the defence of honour.
In terms of wealth, contemporary social commentators such as King and Joseph Massie placed the gentry immediately below the peerage, while Daniel Defoe argued that £100 a year was the minimum income required for a man to be a gentleman. Certainly this was the qualification figure required for JPs and land tax commissioners. But since there were no automatic channels of admission to the peerage, some very wealthy men remained socially as gentry simply because they had no title. This anomaly is clearest by 1883 when John Bateman's survey of landownership revealed that 186 out of 331 landowners with 10,000 acres or more were gentry in this sense.
Informed estimates suggest that the gentry owned about 50 per cent of the landed wealth of the United Kingdom from the 17th cent. onwards. This position was maintained by the queue of businessmen, merchants, bankers, and industrialists to invest part of their fortune in landed estate. The link with landownership has to be treated with care since contemporaries were by no means clear in their understanding. Increasingly a man was a gentleman depending on his style of life, and without reference to his ownership of landed acres. This has given rise among historians to the concept of urban gentry, people who lived in towns, enjoying a reasonable income but lacking the landed acreage or the mansion associated with the country gentry. Many of these were members of professions—lawyers, doctors, and clergy—rising in status and in numbers during the 18th cent. As a result, the gentry as a social group has traditionally lacked cohesion.